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Jesse Pearson: Accidental Curation

August 6, 2013

The founding editor of Apology talks with Rebecca Bates about the trouble with lit mags, defining pornography, responding to book-hype, and avoiding becoming a weird old man.

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Image from Flickr via Nico Paix

In the past two or three years, I’ve watched countless peers churn out seemingly identical literary journals. “Mags,” if you will. Mostly online spaces, some print, that seem to cater to more friends and more peers. Grasping at gimmicks and themes, twists and innovations that seem mostly half-baked. But Apology, founded by Jesse Pearson, the former editor in chief of VICE, has an attitude. Apology has style, but is not concerned with being chic. It does not need you to locate and obsessively devour its social media presence. It is not interested in the trendy, the cute masquerading as the experimental. It does not desire consumers, but the deeply inquisitive, those who didn’t know they needed a twenty-six-page ode to the semicolon or an even longer interview with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim until they were suddenly presented with these monstrous features in Apology’s first issue.

Apology wants readers to remember those artists and writers they’ve forgotten—moreover, those writers and artists they didn’t know they were supposed to know. Perhaps the best and most terrifying piece of fiction in the magazine’s inaugural issue—a story about the friendship between a man and a potentially telepathic horse that feels very much like a hallucination—is by a contemporary writer of little note named Gus Visco. (It’s worth mentioning that Visco’s previous work appears only in Pearson-edited issues of VICE.) But Apology is also committed to digging up the lost: a collection of S&M–inspired photographs from the late 1970s by Jimmy De Sana in the first issue, the debut story by noir writer David Goodis in the second.

It seems like in a lot of magazines, they associate writing, especially literature, with a certain Mad Men-era idea of guys who start their cocktails early and are sophisticated and fight. It’s kind of silly.

Before the release of Apology’s second issue, Guernica trekked to Battery Park to talk to Jesse Pearson about those writers who receive more than their fair share of hype, how we might begin to classify pornography, and the line between the pulp and the literary.

—Rebecca Bates for Guernica

Guernica: In your editor’s notes for the first issue you write that Apology “is my apologia against what I see as the problematic state of magazines today, both big and small.” In an elevator pitch, what problems do you see on the landscape of literary magazines and how does Apology respond to those?

Jesse Pearson: If there were a time that I should have elevator pitches, it’s now, but I don’t really work that way, so it’s difficult for me. Not to get already off topic, but Apology did really well, like the first issue, in terms of selling out and getting great press and people liking it. But I’m so inexperienced in the business world that I don’t know how to capitalize on that, really. So an elevator pitch would be great, but I don’t really have one. But, ok, to answer your question, what’s problematic about magazines today—I was being kind of coy because I don’t want to name names, because when I was at VICE I would burn bridges before I even walked over them; I would just preemptively talk shit about people, and I really don’t want to get into that position again with Apology, because I realize that there’s just nothing good about that.

That said, I think that I could talk specifically about literary magazines today. There seem to be two kinds, to me, that are dominant. Those are either really heavily academic things that come out of schools, which often seem to be a closed circuit—they publish people who are in the program or friends of the program or they all have a certain, often very solemn, agenda. I find those kind of po-faced and kind of tiresome and I don’t know how anybody who has a more casual interest in literature would be able to look at those and find something to read. And then the other side seems to be things that are maybe a little bit too cute or kitsch for my taste. Apology’s stylish, I guess. It has style. But I think that in some mags, maybe the well known literary mags, style’s become all that matters, and it looks like a Wes Anderson version of a magazine, at a certain point, which I think defeats the purpose. It seems like in a lot of magazines, they associate writing, especially literature, with a certain Mad Men-era idea of guys who start their cocktails early and are sophisticated and fight. It’s kind of silly.

Guernica: You told the New York Times that Apology is in part your way of making amends for being part of the hipster culture that came out of Williamsburg, spurred by cultural institutions like VICE. What do you see as the big aesthetic differences between your work on Apology and VICE as it was when you oversaw it? What new moves are you trying to make with Apology?

Jesse Pearson: Part of the reason why I left VICE is I didn’t want to be a guy who was approaching forty who was editing the magazine that was still geared towards only twenty-five year-olds. And I got the sense that there might be no growing up there. I could see myself beginning to feel like a weird old man if I kept doing that. But there is an attitude that I had when I edited VICE that I think continues into Apology, which is just a big broad kind of curiosity, and also not being afraid to be silly as well as sophisticated. So, in a way, I don’t know if what I’m doing in Apology is a reaction against what I did at VICE, it’s more just an evolution of what I did at VICE; it’s a maturation, I guess. And it’s really pretentious to say that, but I think that’s what it is. Also, a caveat, I haven’t looked at VICE since I left so I don’t know what it’s like in comparison to Apology.

Guernica: You also mention that the first issue at least is almost accidentally curated. That is, you didn’t necessarily look for a common theme among the work (everything from Gus Visco’s short story to the Tim and Eric interview). Is heavy curation something you’ll avoid with Apology?

Jesse Pearson: Even when I was at VICE that sort of thing would happen, so there was some kind of a guiding principle that I wasn’t even aware of, which is really exciting when it makes itself clear.

I like the idea of doing a magazine that owes nothing to the current moment.

The thing that seems to pop up a lot in issue two is walking around in different ways, like Americana and even conservatism, and trying to find a way into that and question it. There are a lot of old people in issue two. Really old people. Just like in issue one the anchor was this humongous Tim and Eric interview, the humongous thing in issue two is about baseball. In issue one we did the semicolon piece and tried to make the semicolon really fascinating. I love baseball and am fascinated by it but a lot of people that I know that I think should be fascinated by it or could really get a lot out of it don’t go near it because people like us, I’m assuming, have a predisposition to not like jocks, and I think we’re missing out. So this is a protracted attempt to show people who might not be predisposed to baseball that it’s actually a big, varied, exciting world. It’s like Greek drama.

Guernica: It’s interesting that you say there are a lot of old people in the second issue because I know that the first issue has essays that focus on decades-old work by writers and artists who aren’t necessarily at the forefront of today’s literary moment (“The Lost Collaboration of Terence Sellers and Jimmy De Sana,” Lesley Arfin’s list of things and ideas that are inherently “so 80s”). Seems like there’s a real fascination with or nostalgia for cult figures and cult classics. Where do you think this stems from? What is it about the nearly forgotten that appeals to you?

Jesse Pearson: That’s definitely true. It might even go back to a problem that I see in magazines today: Many magazines seems to be overly obsessed with the new and are often lifestyle/culture catalogs for new, new, new, new, new. I like the idea of doing a magazine that owes nothing to the current moment. Things might pop up, like Gus Visco’s story is brand new, and other never before published fiction by young writers in issue two. But I like being able to look at things that might have been overlooked because the current moment wasn’t right for them, and they weren’t big when they first came out. And as I’ve babbled about in other interviews, a really huge influence on me were these books called The People’s Almanac and The Book of Lists. They were done by the Wallace family, which was the Anglicized version of the name when they moved to America [the son, David, later changed his name back to Wallechinsky]. They’re these huge, encyclopedic books of archaic, esoteric knowledge done in a pop-y way, stuff about the most obscene disgusting things Roman emperors did, followed up by something about Hollywood in the 60s, presented in a list format. I thought that stuff was really valuable.

Guernica: Who are the writers you grew up reading who you think have been mostly lost to the ages, but who we ought to be reading now?

Jesse Pearson: It’s not like there’s a pantheon that I’m waiting to unleash on people. I’m still discovering stuff too. One thing people talk about a lot, but don’t read as much as they talk about, is pulp fiction. For example, in issue two, I’m running the first published story from this great but overlooked writer called David Goodis who is from Philadelphia and who wrote what became the Francois Truffaut film Shoot the Piano Player. Really dark, awesome pulp. I found his first story published in 1939, and it was never anthologized again.

And there are people that I want to bring to Apology who aren’t that obscure. I would’ve done a lot of stuff about the poet Joe Brainard in issue one or two if a guy I’m friendly with named Matt Wolf hadn’t done a documentary about him. He kind of had a moment anyway. He’s part of the New York School. He was friends with James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery. So fucking good and criminally overlooked. But I got beat to the punch.

Guernica: How would you define someone as a pulp writer?

Jesse Pearson: This approaches something I brought up in VICE about the arbitrary distinction between genre fiction, including pulp and so-called literary fiction, and that actually genre writers probably work a lot harder that most literary writers. Of top importance to pulp fiction is plot. It’s not as meandering as a lot of literary fiction. It’s entertainment first and foremost, whereas a lot of literary fiction is about the language. I could take all that apart and parse it out for thirty minutes, but it’d get really boring because someone could say that the language is really rich in pulp—and it is, with the best writers—but they could also say that there are plenty of literary writers that pay attention to plot, but the big distinctions probably make sense. There are great stylists in pulp though. My favorite pulp writer is Charles Willeford. He put a little too much plot into his books to be considered a literary writer, but he’s as much a stylist as James Salter or Exley or someone like that.

I don’t think that the Illuminati control Facebook or anything like that. It’s not some vast spying-on-people conspiracy. I guess it’s similar to Twitter in that it changes people’s priorities in some insidious way.

Guernica: Who are the writers and artists who you wish weren’t receiving so much hype?

Jesse Pearson: Anyone who is on the main table at the local bookstore is probably hyped too much. I could name names, but I don’t want to start any shit-talk. Well, fuck it. I haven’t read it, or anything by her, but I feel like if you look at the past few months of press, both on the independent and mainstream side, and what gets pushed where, it seems like the entire literary world machine agreed that Rachel Kushner was going to be all that they were going to talk about this summer. Rachel Kushner is all you’re going to hear about right now. Maybe [The Flamethrowers] is a good book, but I’m so put off by the idea that it’s been crowbarred into my mouth. It was Franzen two years ago. At least it’s a woman this time. I’ll probably pick it up because I do want to read everything. And people who are good get it. I don’t hate Franzen. He’s not the greatest novelist of our time, but he’s fine. I like some stuff by Jennifer Egan and she was one such person a couple of years ago too. I know that just because something is overhyped doesn’t mean it is bad. Just like everyone said “If you don’t buy the new Daft Punk album, you’re a fucking idiot,” now that’s the deal with The Flamethrowers.

Guernica: I feel that way about Murakami. Everyone loves him and I have never been able to finish one of his books.

Jesse Pearson: I agree with that, and that’s why I forced myself to read 1Q84. I wanted to die, but I kept going. I made a rule when I finished VICE that if I started a book, I had to finish it. I gave that up, but Murakami was in that period for me. It’s so pointless and boring. I thought I might read his book about running too. Maybe it’s his nonfiction that I like.

The only guy who is overhyped, and unfortunately it didn’t happen until after he was dead, was David Foster Wallace, who I think deserves everything that he gets. I don’t think there was or ever will be another person like him. I love seeing Franzen take these pot-shots at him in different ways. Obviously they were competitive.

Guernica: A year from now, what would you like Apology to look like? Who is Apology’s dream reader?

Jesse Pearson: I think there’s enough in it for people who are twenty, people who are sixty. If I had to be more harshly demographic about it, I think there is a group of people like me that felt like they outgrew indie magazines like VICE and they still want to read strange things, magazines that don’t adhere to the entertainment cycle, but they don’t want to be locked into a lifestyle choice. So hopefully everyone will graduate from those magazines on to me.

Guernica: The first issue has new photographs by Ryan McGinley and a story on a Jimmy De Sana photography collection depicting S&M scenes, and you also edited the recent collection of nude photography, Nudity Today. Each of these instances fucks with the classification of pornography, presenting the nude subject as neither base nor high-brow. Maybe this requires a book-length response, but what role do you see pornography playing in our current pop culture moment?

Jesse Pearson: In terms of photography, the first job I had in magazines, which was also my first job in New York, was at a magazine called Index. We worked with a lot of great photographers there, so I got as involved as an editor in photo editing as I am in editing writers. I was the first editor to publish Ryan McGinley’s stuff back then. There’s a real division of labor in publishing sometimes, photo versus words, but I want to do both. I’m glad that I learned early on that you don’t have to choose one.

In terms of pornography, it’s a really big question. Porn is very different now than it was when I was a kid, obviously, because you really have to put something special out there to get someone to buy something, whether it’s a book or a magazine or even a membership to a website, because you can get everything you want for free now. It’s all there all the time. So you have to do something that does more than just the common utility of pornography, which is masturbation or fantasy. It has to be more to make it worthwhile. I don’t think people like Sasha Grey are the solution to that. It’s just porn with a different character. I’ve known a few people who’ve loved her. More than a few. I met her. We shot her in my house once with Richard Kern. Really nice lady and everything. It’s like you’re being given choices, but you really aren’t. I don’t think De Sana is porn, first of all. Nudity Today I guess is pornographic. I don’t think Ryan is porn.

Guernica: How do you draw the distinction?

Jesse Pearson: I guess the distinction is the closer you get to wanting to masturbate to it, the closer it is to porn. Whereas, if you want to contemplate it as a work of art it’s less porn? I don’t know. Although I have thought about one day in the future doing something called Adult Apology, which is like a porno supplement to Apology. One day. But I’m too young and early into the life of Apology to risk that advertising-wise. People are still very prudish about stuff. I think that shot [with Sasha Grey] was great, because it wasn’t just cheesecake. The conversation was really interesting. And it was the most popular show on VICE’s network in terms of traffic by far. But nobody would advertise or buy sponsorships for it. It’s kind of scary.

Guernica: Apology is not on Facebook or Twitter, because, as you note on the magazine’s website, you “can’t decide whether those social networking Goliaths are evil or, rather, just how evil they are.” How else do you see evil manifested in these “social networking Goliaths”? With an essay in Apology’s first issue on Wikipedia’s control over how we consume knowledge, one might also argue that the magazine seems distrustful of online communities as a whole.

Jesse Pearson: The way that Wikipedia allows totally spurious facts to be taken on as truth is really scary. Since I said that stuff about whether I want to get a Twitter for Apology, I killed my own personal Twitter too. I killed Facebook a year ago, at the same time I stopped eating meat. I made this big sweeping change with both of those. I don’t regret any of it. But I love Instagram, maybe because it’s closer to art a lot of the time. You’re looking at imagery. An obvious answer to what I think is wrong with some of that stuff, like with Twitter for example, is that there’s too much condensing going on. It takes a lot of the nuance out of thought. It becomes this competition to say pithy things. When I was really into Twitter, I wouldn’t even read the stuff I followed. I just scrolled through it and then would try to say something that would get somebody to like it. It rewards a short attention span. It’s a popularity contest, big time. I don’t need that. No one does. Unless you’re doing really well. I guess it feeds something.

Apology has a Tumblr—Tumblr is fine—because it’s just a way to get imagery out there. My personal Instagram sort of functions as Apology’s Instagram too. A lot of people, advertisers and business types, have told me that I’m dumb for not having a Facebook page for Apology, but I’m not going to do it. I really don’t want to do it.

Guernica: What scares you specifically about Facebook?

Jesse Pearson: I don’t think that the Illuminati control Facebook or anything like that. It’s not some vast spying-on-people conspiracy. I guess it’s similar to Twitter in that it changes people’s priorities in some insidious way, slowly. I found my priorities changed by Facebook in that I started to think about what I could share that’ll be really interesting but also really quick. What can I share that’s going to get likes? You’re just performing for everyone. You’re just trying to get likes, which is a really sick way to live. You become a dancing dog or something.

Guernica: Who are you reading right now?

Jesse Pearson: Nothing that’s too surprising at this exact moment. People often answer this question with lies, I think. I’ll tell you the truth. I’m finally finishing [Hilary Mantel’s] Wolf Hall. I tried to start it and could never finish it, and I’m really happy that I’m finally doing it. I’m always reading a lot of poetry because it doesn’t take the same kind of long-term commitment. But I always read the same people. I’ve been picking up James Schuyler a lot lately. David Berman’s one poetry book up a lot lately. Eileen Myles who has a fiction piece in the second issue. And also, a big part of my life right now is learning to translate, read, and write ancient Greek, so I’m reading a lot of old Greek. I’m still at the epigram level, pretty much, and elegiac couplets—very short chunks of Greek.

Rebecca Bates is a contributing editor for Guernica Daily and the digital editorial assistant at Architectural Digest. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Guernica Daily, The New Inquiry, NYLON, and elsewhere. Her poetry has been published in or is forthcoming from The Believer, Gulf Coast, LIT, and Wag’s Revue.

Jesse Pearson is a writer, editor, and curator. He is the founding editor of Apology and was the editor-in-chief of VICE Magazine from 2002 through 2010. He conceived, produced, and directed the internet television series Soft Focus and Shot by Kern. He lives in New York. Astrologically, he is a Cancer with Cancer rising and moon in Leo.

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One comment for Jesse Pearson: Accidental Curation

  1. Comment by James Michael on August 6, 2013 at 11:36 am

    Sounds like the magazine for me. Pearson seems to be curating a good variety of stuff here, the Tim and Eric and Gus Visco among the most impressive as far as I’m concerned.

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